Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Personality Typing and Human Relationships

By Mary C. Tillotson

A phlegmatic and a melancholic are sitting on the beach, soaking up the sun and sipping lemonade. The phlegmatic sighs dreamily and says, “Ahh, this is as good as it gets.”

The melancholic, horrified, says, “Yeah, you’re probably right!”

* * *

The “four temperaments” is an idea going back to ancient Greece which seems to becoming more popular as of late – the idea is that there are four basic personality types, and depending on who you talk to, everyone has all four in different amounts, or everyone has a primary and a secondary. You can read more in-depth about the four temperaments here, or about the Myers-Briggs personality typing here. It’s all very interesting.

It can be liberating to find out that you aren’t quite as weird as you thought, that there are other people with quirks similar to yours. It can be relieving to find out that you’re not necessarily a total failure at life; you just have a different set of strengths and weaknesses than the people who often succeed at the things you have a hard time being awesome at.

It can be helpful to read profiles of personality types that are different from yours – especially those of people you interact with frequently, like spouses, friends, and co-workers. It’s helpful to know that what motivates you might not motivate them, and that they tend to look at problems differently than you do. (One of my earliest experiences reading personality profiles was a confused shock: some people are like this? That explains so much!)

But it’s important not to reduce yourself or anyone else to their temperament or personality type. There are as many kinds of people in the world as there are people, and though we can group people into broad categories, the categories are broad. I know people who score the same four letters on the Myers-Briggs test as I do, yet we are very different people.

In a similar vein, I think it’s important not to let personality typing get in the way of getting to know a real person. Healthy relationships of any sort start by sharing things that aren’t very personal and then progressing gradually into more personal matter. I can say “I’m choleric” or “I’m an ISFP” and you automatically know more about me than maybe you need to know at this point in our relationship. I could tell you, in Myers-Briggs terms, “I’m a T,” which tells you I instinctively make decisions based on logic and objective facts, but it doesn’t tell you how hard I’ve worked to develop my (naturally weak) ability to consider my gut instinct and how the decision will affect everyone else, or whether I’m any good at it.

If you’re looking for insight into your strengths and weaknesses or how different people see the world and act in it, personality typing can be helpful; if you’re looking for your identity or anyone else’s, look elsewhere.

* * *

I know my temperament and my Myers-Briggs type, but I don’t share them publicly and I try not to tell people unless we already know each other well. Do you? What are your thoughts on all this?

And for some fun, if you know your Myers-Briggs type, check out these prayers and stress-heads! (Thanks to Anna and Laura who sent them to me!) (And the joke at the top isn’t mine -- it’s an old one.)

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